This Mobile High-Energy Laser-equipped Stryker was evaluated, April 12, during the 2017 Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The MEHEL can shoot a drone out of the sky using a 5kW laser. (Photo Credit: C. Todd Lopez)

A Stryker combat vehicle equipped with a 5kW laser and an array of sensors spent several minutes scanning the horizon for a wayward "enemy" drone. On a television screen in a nearby tent off Thompson Hill - a range used during the recent 10-day Maneuver Fires Integrated Experiment (MFIX) - observers watched the black and white output of those sensors on two flat-screen televisions. A crosshair was centered on the screen. When what appeared to be a drone entered the frame, the crosshairs locked on to it and followed it.

After a few attempts to destroy the drone with the laser, the drone fell from the sky, crashing to the ground. Not a bullet was fired, and no sounds were made by the system that accomplished the kill - an experimental project called the Mobile High-Energy Laser, or MEHEL. The MEHEL is just one system the Army is looking at to deal with the growth of inexpensive off-the-shelf unmanned aerial systems that are being seen in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lt. Col. Jeff Erts, who serves as the chief of experimentation and wargaming with the Fires Battle Lab at the Fires Center of Excellence, said the MEHEL was just one of three drone-killing systems under evaluation at the 2017 MFIX. Also included, he said, was a system called the Anti-UAV Defense System and another branded "Hunter/Killer." There were also command and control systems that provide a common air picture down to platoon and company level, radar systems that can conduct counter-artillery missions, but can also look into the sky, and an unmanned aerial system that can haul supplies to soldiers on the front lines of combat.

If the 2017 MFIX had a "star," however, it was probably the MEHEL. This year, the Stryker configured with that system was marked "MEHEL 2.0," and it sported a 5kW laser versus last year's 2kW laser. The MEHEL 2.0 includes on-board radar, a second optic, increased laser power, and increased engagement range, Erts said. In addition to doing a "hard kill," such as what was seen when the onboard laser shot a drone out of the sky, the system can also do a "soft kill." That means instead of using a laser to destroy a drone, electronic warfare capabilities can be used to disable the communications link between a drone and its ground control station. Then, Erts said, "we can send artillery after the ground control station."

Another possibility after a soft kill on a drone is collecting that drone to gather intelligence information from it.

One thing the MEHEL does not do is make noise, or create any Star Wars-like visual effects. When the laser fires, there's no sound that comes from the vehicle. And observers can't actually see the laser emanating from the "beam director" on top of the Stryker, though if they were close enough to the target, they might see a hole being burned into it from the laser's heat.

One benefit of the MEHEL system is that it doesn't use ammunition to take down either a UAS or ground target. Practically speaking, the only thing MEHEL needs is fuel. The batteries required to fire the laser can be recharged from generators, which are powered by the same fuel that runs the Stryker's engines.